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STEAMbassadors: ‘Part of Something Bigger’

August 10, 2023

teacher demonstrating device to studentsAs a summer STEAMbassador, 18-year-old Patricia Richards was trained to teach children how to code. Ultimately, she improved her own technical skills, but what she loved most was watching the youngsters break into smiles after mastering something new.

“The hardest part was building their confidence around understanding the material so they could create something beautiful,” said Richards, who taught her charges TunePad, a free online platform for making music with the Python programming language. “But I loved seeing their faces when they got it.”

Richards, who is heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in the fall to study bioengineering, was one of 73 STEAMbassadors who demonstrated her work during the recent One Summer STEAMbassadors Showcase at Harry S. Truman College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago.

Throughout the summer, the STEAMbassadors­­––paid, college aged mentors from diverse backgrounds–– facilitated free summer camps for younger children, teaching them everything from coding and robotics to designing a wearable that improves basketball shooting accuracy.

student about to shake impossible ballThe campers and their mentors gathered at Truman for the season’s final hurrah, where they competed in Olympic style “challenge activities” that included racing with programmable robots called Spheros, shaking an “impossible ball” as fast as possible, and tracking free throws.

“It’s really inspiring to be here,” Northwestern University President Michael Schill said after touring the spaces and learning about their projects.  “You’ve not only engaged young people in science, technology, and the arts, but made sure kids have fun along the way. And you had the experience of mentoring and teaching others, the best possible career.”

Calling out one of the key leaders of the effort, Schill added, “Nichole Pinkard, you are amazing. We love you.”

What is a STEAMbassador?

STEAMbassadors, a community mentorship initiative, was founded on the brink of a global pandemic in 2020 by a formidable trio: Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Divas and the Alice Hamilton Professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy; Shawn Jackson, president of Truman College; and Natasha Smith-Walker, executive director of Project Exploration, which expands access to science, particularly for minority youth and girls.

Pinkard, Jackson, and Smith-Walker, who had a history of working together to address inequity in science envisioned a program from the community, for the community. Today, STEAMbassadors trains college-bound 18 to 24-year-olds from under resourced communities to work with youngsters whose neighborhoods lack learning opportunities and role models in the fields of computer science, engineering, and the arts.

The STEAMbassadors are assigned to a neighborhood organization that partners with Chicago Department of Family Support Services programs in parks, libraries, and schools to help build an out-of-school learning ecosystem across the city.

Research-based programs developed by School of Education and Social Policy learning scientists play a crucial role. In addition to TunePad, developed by professor Michael Horn, the mentors are trained to facilitate Pinkard’s Digital Youth Divas and Marcelo Worsley’s Sports Sense. All three out-of school programs incorporate science, technology and the arts into into fun activities.

One of Pinkard’s favorite activities was the citywide Marble Run Challenge, held in partnership with Chicago Public Libraries, which debuted this year and quickly became a crowd favorite. During July, STEAMbassadors led three hours of Marble Run workshops, twice a-week at 10 branches. Students worked together to complete a playlist of challenges, such as building a marble run that takes 60 seconds to complete with no more than 50 pieces.

Then there were the field trips, which introduced science and technology concepts in new settings. The campers took day trips to Garfield Park Observatory, Starved Rock State Park, the ComEd Smart Energy Hub, and Northwestern University.

“When you think STEAM, you think ‘computer science, but there are so many other aspects to it,” said first-year STEAMbassador Karen Rodriguez, who was part of the Digital Divas STEAM Destinations program. “Seeing the kids get new ideas; it’s eye opening sometimes, and they bring it to their home communities. But I also learned a lot by going to the different places.”

For Pinkard, the STEAMbassador program is a critical way to develop mentors and keep them in their home communities. By working as a STEAMbassador, a young adults transitions from a participant to more expert practitioner, she says. They also develop workplace skills and deepen their interests and experiences, especially in STEAM content areas, and build confidence in civic leadership.

Nichole Pinkard speakingSince 2020, more than 225 STEAMbassadors have mentored 1,350 Chicagoland youth across 27 sites. Together, they’ve taught one another musical expression through coding, interactive storytelling, building and engineering, game design, sports science, e-fashion and more.

“You’re part of something bigger,” Pinkard told STEAMbassadors during the closing session. “Our goal is to make STEM seem like play and the experiences you are creating are doing that. So, thank you for doing it for yourselves and for bringing it back to the young people.

“And keep going,” she added with a smile. “This is not a six-week job.”